A place for reflection and healing

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

This month -- October -- marks the second anniversary of my grandfather's death. He slipped way in the night at the age of 78, and his loss is still deeply felt by my family.

I couldn't help but think a lot about Grandpa Schuk this weekend as I spent several hours at the moving "Wall that Heals" in Marked Tree.

My grandfather was an air force pilot who retired after 25 years of service to his country. He was a veteran of World War II -- for which he signed up for by saying he was 18 when he was only 17 -- a veteran of Korea and a veteran of Vietnam.

I still remember the day of his military funeral. The 21-gun salute, followed by the mournful "Taps," was one of the most touching, honorable and emotional things I have ever observed.

I had the privilege of attending several ceremonies at the wall this past weekend, two of which included a gun salute and "Taps." Of course, I thought a lot about my grandfather, but it was very sobering to see the names of over 50,000 soldiers listed on the shiny wall.

State Representative Buddy Lovell pointed out that the wall in Washington D.C. was designed to be shiny on purpose so that one who looks at the memorial will also see his or her own face reflected back with the names.

The wall is definitely a place for reflection and, for some, a place of healing.

Over 200 Vietnam veterans and their family members were honored visitors of Marked Tree last Friday when they were bussed in from their reunion in Memphis just in time to be the grand marshals of the homecoming parade. Most of the veterans didn't know about the homecoming celebration that awaited them, and as I saw their surprised and happy faces from the school buses at the parade I couldn't help but cry.

It breaks my heart that so many brave men, some of which didn't have the choice but to go to Vietnam because of the draft, received such cold and heartless welcomes. Some men told me about being spit on in the airport when they arrived home in the U.S. Funerals of brave men and women became a platform for protest. I can never imagine why people would be so cruel, and I hope I'm never directly faced with such cruelty in my own lifetime.

It was an honor for me to meet the veterans, all of which had a unique story to tell. A thousand books with a thousand pages could never tell them all, but at least one chapter was added last weekend. After more than 40 years, those brave veterans finally received the homecoming they deserved. And, as they say, I suppose it's better late than never.

The veterans also left a special part of themselves behind when they planted a tree in Cypress Park near where the wall stood. They placed the tree in the Marked Tree soil and poured dirt from Vietnam in the hole as well. When the tree grows big and strong, it will always stand as a silent witness to the sacrifices of so many and the healing that took place on the banks of the St. Francis River.